Monday, July 7, 2014

PG should not equal inferior

Last week a debate broke out as to whether or not to abolish the PG-13 rating, a result of a PG-13 being given to the upcoming Expendables 3. I tend to think that all MPAA ratings are useless and inaccurate and should be done away with, but that's not what I want to address. Amidst the debate, I noticed something that was taken for granted on both sides. On the pro-abolish side:
...So here's what we do. We lobby to eliminate PG-13. What this does is force the MPAA to look at content differently.... Instead of shaming adults into seeing a PG-rated film, embolden them to see an R-rated movie, knowing there's more adult content available for them.
And on the anti-abolish side:
...Thanks to the PG-13 rating the PG rating has been softened to the point it's rarely used any longer, while at the same time studios aren't going to make big budget tentpole features for an R-rated, adults-only audience. Marvel and DC Comics' movies will be watered down to the PG-rating and adults will begin to shy away, a solution no one wants.
(Emphasis mine in both quotes.)

Why should there be any shame in seeing a PG movie? If we agree, as both sides of the debate do, that PG-13 means an extremely limited amount of profanity and nudity and a fair amount of violence (as I noticed, for example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past), does that mean that we, as an adult audience, reject movies without them, regardless of content? I'm not sure I like what that says about us (and I absolutely include myself in this statement).

PG-13 was created to stretch the boundaries of PG movies, while stopping short of explicit sex and violence, which would remain the purview of the R movie. As a result, PG-13 has become extremely profitable for Hollywood because it favors the youth market, particularly when it involves genre material, whether it's young adult action (Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent), general sci-fi/fantasy (Inception, Pacific Rim), or the superheroes (as if you need examples of those). Indeed, these days it's not unusual for some PG-13 movies to skate close to the edge of an R rating.

'Belle' is a recent example of
a PG movie with adult themes.
In the process, however, PG movies that express adult themes without relying on some combination of sex, violence and profanity have become all but extinct at the big studios. We agree that PG-13 is what Hollywood tends to aim for now, for many of their movies, because that's where the money is, but by implication, that also means that we, the audience, now demand a certain amount of violence and profanity, because that's more "realistic." (We still have a problem with sexuality, though, but that's another story.) 

Many of the greatest movies of Hollywood's Golden Age would get by with a PG rating today (assuming they could get made at all). True, the industry operated under a production code that placed extreme limits on sex and violence, but those great movies succeeded, and stood the test of time, in spite of those restrictions. Does anyone really think Casablanca would be greatly improved with Humphrey Bogart swearing, or with a sex scene between him and Ingrid Bergman? But no one thinks in those terms these days.

I'm not a prude, but I do think it's unfortunate that market demands have prevented adult PG films from being economically viable. Sure, nudity and profanity may make a movie look more like real life, but in creative terms, it's easy, and after using it time and again, it loses its impact. Not every movie needs it that badly. So if we must have ratings in American films, I say that instead of eliminating the PG-13, let's strengthen the PG instead, by investing in adult films that don't rely on sex and violence. It would open up an under-served audience that's fed up with modern movies, and it would do away with the stigma associated with PG films, a stigma it didn't earn and doesn't deserve.



  1. Hi, there - here via Ryan McNeil at the Matinee, and I couldn't agree more! I saw both of those articles, and I pretty much thought the same thing you just said. What's wrong with there being a film that's intended for adults but doesn't happen to have explicit language, sex, or violence? If those things are important to the story, setting, or mood, by all means, have them in and rate it R. But if they're not, why not let it be PG?

    I suspect this battle has already been lost (as I posted on Twitter in the midst of ranting about this very thing, ratings have becoming more of a marketing tool rather than a content descriptor), but it does irritate me. You can have sophisticated, adult-centric content that isn't explicit.

  2. Also - and I didn't want to admit this, but I suspect it may be true as well - I think most adult PG movies might be the kind that skew much older, especially period pieces like 'Belle.' And movies like that may win awards, but they rarely make the big bucks. So yeah, I think this ship has indeed sailed.


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